By Fatmah Al-Qadfan
We are a nation of self-proclaimed foodies, of savvy eaters, of fledgling chefs and newborn restaurants. We love to eat. Better yet, we love to travel to eat. But are we adventurous eaters or are we simply flocking to the same cities to find the same restaurants to order the same dishes?
I am becoming more aware of our travel habits as a society (thanks to social media platforms for shedding a bright light here!). When someone is about to travel to a new city, they make a beeline for the last person they know who was there and they demand a list. If you kindly suggest a few restaurants to someone then rest assured that the favor will be returned when it’s your turn to take a trip – whether you’ve asked for help or not!
This of course happened when I told my family and friends that I was taking a trip to Amman, Jordan. A long list of food recommendations to satisfy my every craving was bestowed upon me. It was carefully prepared and clearly had been passed on to others before me. The details included restaurant names, addresses and even phone numbers. It was like a mini gastronomic travel guide! Although I appreciated the advice, I decided to use the list as a back up plan because I take pride in discovering my own little gems while traveling.
As far as cities go, Amman is not gourmet capital. There is no doubt that food is fresh in Jordan with plenty of local produce and meat at hand, as well as an array of herbs and spices. There are some amazing dishes in Jordan but the country as a whole lacks that je ne sais quoi when it comes to food. Yet I was determined to have at least one memorable dining experience and for me that meant venturing away from upscale restaurants and into the heart of the old city. After extensive research, I found what I was looking for: Beit Sitti.
On a narrow street in the oldest part of Amman, sits another old house weighed down by its large white cut stones. On the outside it looks just like its neighbors but this house is in fact very different. Beit Sitti is a small culinary school run by the friendly and professional Maria Haddad. Maria and her sisters founded Beit Sitti in honor of their grandmother who taught them how to cook and they run the place with love and dedication, gaining unparalleled popularity in the process. Beit Sitti is a novel concept in Amman in that it seems to be popular with the Western tourists but also attracts a small but steady Jordanian crowd.
By signing up for a meal, you’re actually enrolling in a one-time cooking class where you learn how to make Jordanian dishes from scratch. For brunch you learn how to make manaeesh (cheese and zataar), hummus, foul and falafel. Lunch and dinner at Beit Sitti will have you preparing staples such as fattoush and tabbouleh and a well known Jordanian dish like mujadara, musakhan and maaloubeh. No meal is complete without dessert. At Beit Sitti you could master kunafeh or one of the other Arabic desserts they specialize in. The cooking courses take place in a greenhouse-like structure where you almost feel like you’re outdoors, cooking under the sky and looking over Amman.
Haddad has devised ways to further enrich her visitors’ experience. When available, a local storyteller would come in to tell you all about Jabal Al-Weibdeh, giving you a glimpse of the area’s history. You could request to go on a neighborhood tour or visit the vegetable market with Um Reem (who makes incredible falafel) and help her buy the ingredients. Now that’s my kind of dining experience!
I signed up for brunch at Beit Sitti where I learnt how to make five different dishes. I was exposed to a different dining experience; I met new people and enjoyed conversation over food that I helped prepare. Although I had the urge to just head to the Four Seasons for a meal, I am glad that I stepped out of my comfort zone and away from all the recommendations.
The next time you’re traveling? Try not to ask for a list. Go on, explore.